Sydney – The NSW Waratahs have the lure of hosting their first Super Rugby final if they can get past the ACT Brumbies, while Richie McCaw bolsters the Canterbury Crusaders for their Sharks semi-final this weekend.
The Waratahs are chasing their first Super Rugby title after two losing finals and are in the midst of a seven-match unbeaten run, including a 39-8 thumping of the Brumbies in Sydney last month.
The Tahs have been the perennial underachievers in 18 years of Super Rugby, but under taskmaster Michael Cheika they finished seven points clear in this season's final standings and look the team to beat.
The Sydneysiders have the twice triumphant Brumbies to overcome at home on Saturday to ensure that they will stage this year's final against the winners of the Crusaders and Sharks, who do battle in Christchurch on the same day.
It will be the fourth time the Waratahs have hosted a semi-final with their only loss to the Brumbies 51-10 in 2002.
Even though the Tahs crushed the Brumbies five tries to one at their last meeting, Cheika is warning his charges to expect a torrid Australian derby with the Canberra side, who ended the two-year title reign of the Waikato Chiefs in last week's home play-off 32-30.
“Their key players are back and they've got just as many international players as we have and they've got an excellent record in the last two or three seasons,” Cheika said.
“It's going to be a really good match. We know what we have to do. We're concentrating very much on our style and what we need to deliver in the game Ä try and turn the dial up as high as possible come kick-off.”
Cheika has recalled South African powerhouse lock Jacques Potgieter and is leaving Wallaby giant Will Skelton on the bench for a second half impact, while 12-try fullback Israel Folau and winger Rob Horne are back.
The Brumbies are unchanged and forwards coach Laurie Fisher expects his team to be strong in the set-piece.
“To have got through last weekend injury free, it's great for us to be playing again this weekend to maintain momentum,” he said.
“We were comfortable with where our set piece was last week against the Chiefs. I expect those areas to work in our favour again this weekend.”
The Waratahs have a strong record at home over the Brumbies, winning seven of their last eight meetings.
The seven-time champion Crusaders have All Blacks captain McCaw back from a rib injury at blindside flanker for their semi-final with the Sharks.
Coach Todd Blackadder has also brought in former All Black hooker Corey Flynn, meaning the Crusaders will boast 13 current or former New Zealand internationals in their run-on side.
Jake White's Sharks upset the Crusaders 30-25 in May to become the South African side to win in Christchurch since 2001.
“The Sharks have shown this season that they are an extremely classy outfit and a very difficult team to beat. This is our biggest challenge yet, but we feel ready for it,” Blackadder said.
The Crusaders and even the Sharks can host this year's final if the Waratahs go down to the Brumbies.
South African conference winners the Sharks also have the added incentive of becoming the first overseas team to win a final in the history of Super Rugby.
“We have to be positive about winning two games overseas to get the title,” coach White said.
“Over the last fortnight we have had a great win over the Stormers and then had to fight for our lives to beat the Highlanders, and that is great momentum to take into the semi-finals.”
But the Crusaders will be a tough nut to crack. They have been in 10 finals, winning seven, and know what playing pressure rugby is all about while the Sharks have lost all four of their finals. – Sapa-AFP